Over the past year, I’ve been working through a cookbook my wife bought me for Christmas – a very dangerous cookbook called the DIY Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve reviewed it in stages here on this blog. But I want here to zero in on one recipe: chocolate sandwich cookies.
One promise the book makes is to replicate all the brand-name preservative-laden junk Americans buy at the supermarket, using simple ingredients. I say ‘junk’ as though these people condemned the stuff, but quite obviously they don’t. From ketchup to peanut butter to American cheese slices, they glory in the contents of the stereotypical suburban larder. And one place where I met their enthusiasm is the Oreo cookie.
Now, as a father, competent in the kitchen and married to someone at least equally so, with whom I have nurtured a “why buy it when you can make it?” approach to food, I tend to provide wholesome, oaty cookies for the kids. Oreos are not a quotidian experience here. So reproducing them in the kitchen is more amazing for me than for them,1 in the “look what I just did” sense rather than the magical meal provision sense. I saw the recipe in the book, thought it would be cool to try, and never quite found the right conditions to make it happen. But year-end drew near, and I wished to sample recipes from throughout the book. Halfway through December, it was finally time to give it a go.
I had tried a few days before O-Day to source “black cocoa,” which gives Oreos their especially dark character. The book tells me it has been double-Dutched and is not so widely available, but one can order it through a couple of different websites. Nuts to that, I sez: I want to make them now, and I don’t want to spend a bunch of money doing it (as I did sourcing beans for their homemade vanilla extract…) My wife recalls the Guardian’s baking columnist Dan Lepard talking about roasting cocoa in the oven. I dig up his recipe online – seems right. So I cook 1/4 c. of cocoa for half an hour, nervous that it’s going to disappear in a puff of smoke: it doesn’t burn, but doesn’t exactly darken. I mean, it’s darker than the stuff in the tin, but I wouldn’t call it black. Anyway, it’s ready.
The other challenging ingredient is the shortening – a staple in North America but not so common here. They do hard margarine, but it’s yellow like butter, and the reason the book advocates shortening is for the white colour (definitely not for the taste; they in fact do half and half with butter because butter tastes much better, though on its own is apparently too rich as well as too yellow). Seriously, this country: lard, beef dripping, even goose fat at this time of year – goes with your seasonal roast potatoes. Shortening? Not so much. But on Wednesday 18 December, we’re out and about at the posh end of town and find some at the bespoke grocer. All the elements are in place.
I make the dough whilst dinner is cooking. I’ll bake after we eat and get the kids to bed. Over dinner, my wife mentions her own baking plans. We had vague intentions of making fudge or peppermint cremes for the kids’ teachers, but somewhen during our perambulations in the afternoon it became clear that this would not happen for tomorrow – the last day of classes. So the fall-back, safe option of biscotti: “But I’ll wait til you’re done with the oven,” she says.
Well, wait – if I’m making cookies, couldn’t we give some of them instead? We have an infant in the house, and I’m currently all about making as little work for my wife as possible.
She shrugs. “Sure.”
Now, I would not recommend making something as finicky as Oreos as gifts for others without some practice at the recipe first. This batch was intended for domestic consumption only. But I had committed myself now, so the pressure was on.
I won’t go through the blow-by-blow. They were made and baked in something like the manner the recipe dictated. There was some fudging along the way, some sloppiness. They were not disasters, and with more practice and precision, I could probably get them right. But remember – the victory here is in the achievement, not the boon it brings out house in the tastiness of kitchen-made preservative-free chocolate sandwich cookies that bless our bodies and take a line out of the grocery budget. I don’t really care enough to perfect them.
Still, squeezing them together, cookie by cookie, I was getting down on myself. They were not circular, they were not even in thickness, and they occasionally split as I pressed them together. They were not pretty.
“Come on,” my wife soothed, “you know if you put a plate of those out for our friends, they would disappear.” Probably right. “And Miss T___ and Mrs O___ will eat them all in one go.” She waited just a beat before adding, “and be so impressed with the kids for making presents themselves.” Insert stuck-out tongue or middle finger – your dismissal of choice.
It reminds me of the Simpsons episode (so many things do) in which Marge becomes addicted to gambling. She is so overtaken by slots at Springfield’s new casino that she neglects to help Lisa with her costume for the “Dress as a State” geography pageant at school. Up on stage, Lisa looks embarrassed and resigned, with two foam mattresses cut to look vaguely like Florida lashed to her body with duct tape – Homer’s handiwork, obviously, meriting her the award from Principal Skinner for the kids who “clearly had no help from their parents whatsoever.” (Ralph Wiggum shares the stage with Lisa, dressed as normal but with a sheet of paper in front bearing the word IDAHO; “I’m Idaho!” he says.)
Yes, it cuts. but I’m sure they will be enjoyed. They taste quite good – not as crisp a biscuit as Oreos, but the flavour of the filling is all there, abetted no doubt by my homemade vanilla extract.
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies – by the numbers
Recipe says it makes: 40
Number I produced: 38.5
Number of biscuits eaten before getting iced: 3
Number of cookies sampled by me and my wife: 2
Number of reasonably presentable cookies wrapped in foil to give to teachers on the kids’ last day of school before Christmas: 12 (2 x 6)
Number of less presentable and more inconsistently shaped cookies to eat at home: 15
Number of cookies with crushed biscuits during assembly which will nonetheless get eaten because the icing holds them together: 9
Size of spoon recommended for icing: “a rounded 1/2 teaspoon”
Size of spoon used to add icing: 1/2 teaspoon
Amount of icing that provides for each cookie: way too much – my biscuits, I think, were too small and probably, by correlation, too thick
Amount of icing left over after cookies assembled: none – can’t quite square that with the numbers, but c’est la vie; keeps me from digging in with a spoon to soothe my shame